June 18, 2004

Birds, more birds, and a certain je ne sais quoi (NZ)

Our next destination after Fiordland: Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula. Why? Well, if there's one thing Miriam likes more than the soaring alpine vistas of the Routeburn Track -- it's penguins. The Otago peninsula is one of the best places in New Zealand to spot the rare yellow-eyed penguin or "hoiho" ("noise shouter" in Maori).

Yellow-Eyed Penguin or Hoiho

Miriam loves penguins. A lot. It's hard to describe in writing, or any other way frankly, exactly how much she loves penguins. But I digress. Well, barely.

The Otago Peninsula is a little peninsula off of Dunedin, the somewhat Scottish university town in the south-east end of the South Island of New Zealand. Dunedin itself was quite charming, and we spent a few nights there after scuttling plans to take a longer route to the east coast via the "Southern Scenic Route" (allegedly a desperate attempt by Invercargill to lure tourists south of Fiordland). While Dunedin itself is quite nice, the real attraction for tourists is the rare wildlife and beautiful coastal scenery of the Otago Peninsula itself.

Returning thusly to the point, one of the rare wildlife attractions is a yellow-eyed penguin reserve. A private land-owner realized that he had a rare penguin colony on his hands and redeveloped his land into a carefully-managed conservation and eco-tourism venture. The colony has grown in size thanks to his efforts to protect their habitat (others have disappeared at the hands of more aggressive agricultural expansion), and tourists like us are treated to a rare opportunity to get a very good look at these penguins. In any case, the experience did not disappoint. What was once farmland has been converted into a vast penguin habitat criss-crossed by a network of clinically elaborate viewing hides and connecting tunnels.

Penguin Place

The result is that the penguins are essentially undisturbed (extensive research is done on the penguins' condition) -- a good thing since they are not as naturally nonchalant about human presence as little blue penguins, especially those of the Penguin Parade. You get a little introductory talk about the penguins before spending an hour at the site. We saw about 15 of the rare penguins -- in all sorts of settings.

A number of them had already returned from a day's fishing at sea (or hadn't gone out at all that day) -- and were standing around or snoozing -- but we were also lucky to see two come back from sea. We saw one undertake the long walk across the beach and the other swim back and forth where the waves broke, making sure it was safe to exit (it wasn't, due to the presence of a fur seal, so the penguin took its time.)

For those interested, there are more penguin pictures.

Right before the penguins, we checked out another wildlife rarity -- the only mainland royal albatross colony in the world. Also situated on the peninsula, at Taiaroa Head, the albatross colony was in post-breeding mode, so we saw some extremely cute and fuzzy albatross babies.

A full-grown royal albatross has a roughly three-metre wingspan and is a truly incredible bird. We luckily saw one of them flying in the distance as we climbed the hill to the lookout point. The adult albatross can swoop at speeds of up to 115 km/h by locking its wing-bones and harnessing -- extremely efficiently, obviously -- the air currents. Moreover, juvenile royal albatross don't mate right away. First they circle the southern portion of the globe around Antarctica for several years (3-6!) -- get this -- without ever touching land. They barely even touch water, because they can -- again, locking their wings -- catch 40 winks while in the air! Yes, that's right. They sleep while flying. Take that, First Class air travel. Anyway, so albatross are really cool, as it turns out. Unfortunately a lot of them drown after getting tangled up in fishing lines. Up to half die at the hands of illegal fishing boats, and many more deaths could be avoided by an improvement to longline fishing practices (see the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels). There's a worldwide effort on to draw attention to their incredible migratory patterns. One specific project is an albatross race (the Big Bird Race), where albatross lovers can bet on one of the birds as it makes for the finish line, a north-south line through, rather appropriately, the Cape of Good Hope on the African continent. The race is put on by Ladbrokes, the Tasmanian government, and the Conservation Foundation, and each albatross is sponsored by a celebrity. Sadly but predictably, some of the birds will not finish the race, highlighting the problems they face.

Back to Dunedin! One of the highlights of Dunedin was our lovely hostel, Adventurers Backpackers Lodge. It was the coziest place we have stayed on our trip. There was a real roaring fire in the fireplace, comfy couches, board games and plenty of reading material, free Internet, a pool table, and funky decorations in the rooms. Two thumbs up!

As with the penguins, there are more pictures of the Otago Peninsula.

After our excursions on the Otago Peninsula, we drove north in a hurry to catch a bus to Akaroa, the launching pad for our next and final tramp: the Banks Peninsula Track (2-day version). Our adventures with sheep and coastlines on this tramp are detailed elsewhere, but Akaroa, where we spent the night after our tramp, deserves a brief mention of its own. Akaroa is a quaint little harbor town that really, really wants to be in France. It wants to be in France so badly that it has French colours and "esprit" painted -- literally and figuratively -- across the town. It wants to be in France because the French tried to settle it many years ago, only to be outdone by the British (zut alors!). Akaroa's "If you love ..." marketing tagline dominated promotional materials (e.g. "if you love ... indulgence"; "if you love ... wildlife"; "if you love ... actually being in France itself, it's only about 19,000 km away!").


We stayed at an incredibly nice Bed-and-Breakfast-styled hostel, run by a savvy New Yorker, called "Chez La Mer" (did we mention the obsession with France?). The hostel had a hammock -- all too briefly enjoyed -- in a lovely rear courtyard. We also enjoyed the outdoor cafes and peaceful harbour scene, as well as feasting on some damn fine fish and chips to sate our extreme post-tramp munchies.

I regret to say that our trip ended with a bit of unpleasantry, referred to by the locals as "Christchurch". With all due respect to fans and residents of Christchurch, we hated the place. It might have been that we were "buzzed" (some combination of obscenity-shouting and needless honking) by passing motorists on at least five separate occasions. It might have been the lack of nightlife. It might have been our room at the Christchurch YHA. It might have been -- and this can't be counted too lightly, of course -- the stomach flu Miriam contracted and the fact that we had to re-book our flights and spend an extra day in the city. Whatever it was, it wasn't pretty. No doubt Christchurch has some redeeming features. We just didn't stumble across any of them.

But as soon as we actually got out of there, the proverbial bad taste in our mouths was quickly replaced by our memories from the rest of the trip. The three weeks we spent in New Zealand were not nearly enough. Can't wait to get back there, especially for some more tramping!

Posted by anatole at June 18, 2004 11:22 PM

Eee, penguins! They are pretty adorable. I want to hug one. Want, want, want!

Also, sorry to hear about Miriam's stomach flu. The same thing happened to me on a weekend trip to California once. There's nothing worse than being extremely ill in a random hotel somewhere, all the while knowing that you're going to have to get on a flight the next day. Many sympathies.

Posted by: Tyla at June 20, 2004 02:41 AM

Yes, albatross (es?) are awesome. There is a colony in Kauai near where my aunt has a place, and they get all over... there was a next directly underneath our lanai (balcony, whatever). When I was there, only the baby was left, and each day he would go out on the golf course to practice flying. The parents basically ditched him so that he would have to figure out how to fly... at least that's what we were led to believe. For a few days we were worried he'd been abandoned too early, because he spent most of his time just sitting there.

I'd love to go in winter and see the mating dances, but haven't had a chance yet. I don't know if those are Royal albatross or not, but they're big.

And now you know strange, fairly irrelevant peripheral information.

Posted by: George at June 23, 2004 04:59 AM